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The Aravali region under threat

Sunny Sebastian

Uncontrolled mining for marble poses a grave danger to the Aravali region in Rajasthan — a barrier checking the spread of the Thar northwards.

UNREGULATED MINING for marble is going on at a furious pace in Rajasthan's Rajsamand district. Apparently abetted by the policies of the State Government it poses a serious threat to the region's environment, mainly the Aravali hills which act as a natural barrier — blocking the northwards spread of the mighty Thar desert.

The importance mining gets from the State's political leadership is evident from the fact that one Minister holds both the Forest and Mining portfolios. While the Forest Department authorities assert that no mining activity — legal or illegal — is being carried out on the 62,959.91 hectares of forestland in the district, the locals speak in hushed tones about blasting sounds emanating from the area surrounding the Kumbalgarh sanctuary.

Clever manipulation

The land categorised as Bila naam (land not owned by anyone and which, for the same reason, is Government land) and leased out for mining, could have been categorised as forestland had not the political leadership, with considerable "foresight," kept it out of that category. "They have done it rather cleverly. From 1960 onwards, during land surveys most of the potential mining areas have been kept out of the purview of the forest," says Bharat Taimni, Conservator of Forests (Aravali), Wildlife, at Udaipur.

"We have very good, well stocked areas under mining now. If one applies the Supreme Court order in this regard strictly these areas should have been under forest," he says. "Rajsamand is a typical district. There is very little topsoil even in the forest areas. As the proper disposal of marble slurry is not taking place in the district all the good soil is getting affected." The degeneration of the revenue wasteland is set to become a big problem in the area in future. This is particularly serious considering that Udaipur division has a high tree cover — 33 per cent — in the otherwise arid State.

The Supreme Court order of October 20, 2002, placing a ban on mining in the Aravali hills, had observed that the whole hill system came under the category of "forest land." "We prohibit and ban all mining activity in the entire Aravali hills. The ban is not limited to hills encircling Kote and Alampur villages [in Haryana] but extends to the entire hill range of the Aravali [range] from Haryana to Rajasthan," it said. However, following a representation from the State Governments involved, the summary ban was lifted on December 16, 2002.

"The Governments in their representation quoting expert opinion on the Aravali hill system misled the court. Though the Geological Survey of India never approved the definition that hills up to the height of 100 metres were not Aravalis, the authorities gave a representation saying that GSI agreed with this definition," says M.L. Jhanwar, a former director of the GSI.

Senior Forest Department officials say that after the closure of the marble mines in Andhi near Ramgarh in Jaipur district — following a Supreme Court order two years ago — there is tremendous pressure from the mining lobby to open up more forest areas. In Rajsamand, 13 applications seeking no-objection certificates for mine leases were rejected between April and August 2005.

Since 2002, the marble lease area has been increased to a minimum of four hectares the earlier 7 metres by 7 metres plots. Now, to start with, an individual can have two plots of four hectares each and according to the investment, can go up to 28 hectares. The Rajasthan Marble Policy 2002, allows additional areas under lease for any individual, under the Rajasthan Minor Mineral Concession Rules 1986 — if the excavation involves the use of big machinery such as compressors, rock drill machines, diamond wire saws, mechanical excavators-cum-loaders, diesel or electric-operated cranes, and tractor trolleys or dumpers. The argument is that the use of big machinery helps environment-friendly mining.

Any person who has installed two or more diamond gang saws or automatic tiling plants with a motor capacity of 150 HP can take on lease 12 hectares for mining and those having four or more gang saws, can get on lease up to 20 hectares. A person who has made an investment exceeding Rs.10 crores in a mine mechanisation/processing plant, can get up to 28 hectares. As for the prospecting of land for potential deposits, the lease starts with a minimum of five hectares and goes up to 50 hectares.

Apart from this, under Rule 65 of the Rajasthan Minor Mineral Concession Rules 1986, the State Government can waive rules and allocate any number of leases to a particular individual or group. This provision, unfortunately, negates all regulations with regard to controlled mining.

"Larger areas under leases or mechanisation alone cannot ensure pollution-free mining. Mechanisation has its disadvantages also," says U.K. Jha, senior vice-manager of R.K. Marbles. The marble giant, with its headquarters and gang saw operations at Kishengarh, some 150 km away in Ajmer district, can perhaps boast of the most modern mining plants in the country. "Diesel emissions from heavy machinery, dust generated from drilling, and the deafening noise, are all there for us to tackle," says Mr. Jha rather matter-of-factly.

During 2003-04, Rajsamand mines produced 29.80 lakh tonnes of marble worth Rs.43 crores against 25.83 lakh tonnes worth Rs.25.97 crores in 2002-03. In 2001-02 when the production was lower (22.48 lakh tonnes), the income registered was higher than that in 2002-03. Trade circles attribute this to the slump in the demand for Rajsamand marble during the period.

"Rajsamand is an environment hotspot," says Madan Modi, a journalist-cum activist, who has been battling the mining lobby in the area for some time. "Uncontrolled and unscientific mining is posing a serious threat to the Kumbalgarh wildlife sanctuary situated in the Aravali hills. Destruction of the Kumbalgarh forests, now serving as the green corridor dividing the arid west Rajasthan from the rest of northern India will lead to the march of the Thar towards Delhi, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat," he warns.

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